Beautiful Sonya Renee, an internationally acclaimed performance poet, actress, educator and activist, has performed on stages from New Zealand to Scotland to New York. Here, she performs with Snap Live! in DC.

Beautiful

Beautiful

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Sonya Renee, an internationally acclaimed performance poet, actress, educator and activist, has performed on stages from New Zealand to Scotland to New York. Here, she performs with Snap Live! in DC.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

So one of my favorite things about snap is that every once in a while, we get to take it on the road with some of the world's finest storytellers, backed by the very best band in the business. And up next is a story from Snap Live!. So go ahead, put everything away. Tell the boss lady she has to wait. This is your time. Now, listen to Sonya Renee break it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WASHINGTON: Today, a local girl made good. Please put your hands together for your own Sonya Renee.

(APPLAUSE)

SONYA RENEE: My mama has sweaty knees.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: If you were a little black girl, it is likely that you knew your mama had sweaty knees, too. And we knew this because for nearly a decade, we sat between our mama's sweaty knees to have any myriad of atrocities committed to our scalps. My mama braided, ponytailed, pulled my hair every single day of the week, and every six weeks, I got a relaxer. I can assure you, there is nothing relaxing about having 8-year-old black girl hair. Actually, I was pretty certain there was nothing that could be worse. See, first there were the commercials, the ones with people who never had faces or hair like mine. And then there was my mother's sheer disdain and short temperedness every time I sat between her sweaty knees to have my hair pulled, brushed and snatched back. My mother, 5-foot-4-inches on a good day, had the hands of Hercules.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: I swear she could rip the steel beams from beneath the very flesh of the Empire State Building. But instead, she used those hands to braid my hair (laughter). And if I squirmed in the seat while she did it, stop all that moving around. And if I reached to touch my hair, bop - get your fingers out of your head. And if I cried, crack - shut it up, child. Stop all that moving around before I pop you in the head with this brush.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: I know it sounds awfully abusive.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: It was.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: But the truth is my mother just wanted her daughter to be beautiful. And when she finished, my hair was a work of art. I was an African princess, a black goddess, queen of the pretty girls everywhere until I went to school. See, the first thing to die under the heavy weight of my mother's palms were my hair follicles. My mother pulled my hair so tightly that by third grade, I had permanent bald spots on the side of my head. Now, not only did I have short hair, but in some places, it was nonexistent. And every day, I got on the school bus headed to Woolslair Elementary School to be reminded of how far from beautiful I truly was. See, there was Tonya Twyman - awful name - Tonya, four years older than me and mean as they made them. I swear, she breathed to make my life sad (laughter). And she always started the school bus ride with a chant. It was very quiet at first - Sonya, Sonya, Sonya, Sonya bald spots.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: And the whole bus would join in - Sonya, Sonya bald spots - while I sat in the front and wept, closest to the bus driver. They became the soundtrack of my most visceral insecurities, the music of my adolescence. My first date - Sonya, Sonya bald spots, the first time I kissed a boy - Sonya, Sonya bald spots, the first time I fell in love - Sonya, Sonya bald spots they would be singing just behind my back. I was beginning to believe that there would be no respite from the chasm of hair shame. That is, until the 1990s. LL Cool J told me he wanted a girl with extensions in her hair, and I thought finally...

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: ...And realized that I could add hair to my head, and that's what I did. See, I had never heard of weave until ninth grade when I realized that black girls all over the land were sprouting shoulder-length locks. No one would have to know the shame lurking beneath the piles of possibly-human hair on the top of your head.

(LAUGHTER)

RENEE: And I knew that I had found my panacea. But quickly, my hair heaven turned into a hair hell as I spun in a decade-long cyclone that always lived out the same pattern, every year. Get a relaxer, usually leaving painful chemical burns on my scalp. Use glue. Add weave. Watch my own hair break off like splintered wood as a result of the glue. Get a relaxer and start the process all over again until 2001, when I discovered the holy grail of hair solutions. I discovered wigs.

(APPLAUSE)

RENEE: No, well, actually, it's more like wigs discovered me. See, you can put them on. Up until then, I thought of wigs as like some sort of terrible 1970s relic, something my grandmother would wear. But no, not these wigs. These wigs were beautiful, and these were my ticket to being beautiful. They allowed me to forget about the chemical burns and my mama's sweaty knees. They let me forget that I wasn't beautiful. That is until I took them off. And then, like Cinderella at the end of the ball, I was 9-years-old and on a bus headed to Woolslair Elementary. And I promised myself I would never go back there. So I took them off less and less. To walk my dog, I grabbed the wig. To go to the grocery store, I grabbed a wig. I had lovers that knew me for years and never saw me without my wig. And even when I became a performance poet and started telling people how to unapologetically love their bodies, I did it all in my wig. Until one day - let's call it today - I woke up and realized I'd been living in a tiny prison of synthetic hair, that the wigs had made me a liar. I was really just a little girl pretending to be a woman who actually loved herself, but some deep knowing in the center of my belly kept asking me what would it be like if I let myself out of that prison? What would it look like if I told the truth to myself, to my world? I think it would look like this.

(APPLAUSE)

RENEE: And I would walk back to that school bus and grab 9-year-old Sonya by the hand, walk her off of that bus and into womanhood with me, whispering you have always been beautiful.

(APPLAUSE)

WASHINGTON: Thank so much, Sonya Renee. The original score for that piece was created by Alex Mandel and performed by Alex Mandel and the SNAP JUDGMENT players, David Brandt and Tim Frick. Now, our very good news is that Sonya Renee just moved back to Oakland, right where she belongs. Welcome back, darling. Sonya Renee is the founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, an international movement sweeping the planet. We'll have a link on our website, snapjudgment.org. Now, when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, the good fairy has a lot of work to do. SNAP JUDGMENT, "The 2014 Look Back Special." Don't go anywhere. Stay tuned.

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